Corn Syrup Kung Fu
For years now I have been a Jet Li fan. He has always been exciting to watch, even if the films he has been in weren't that great. As time has gone by though he has gotten better and the films he chooses to be apart have gotten better. So, when I went to watch The Sorcerer and the White Snake I was not expecting to watch a movie that would use up two hours of my time the way being stuck in traffic does. I know I watched a film with Jet Li, but I didn't see Jet li. What I saw was a cheap candy coated dose of twisted Chinese legends with an unclear pseudo religious message.
The story follows two characters, a demon who is a white snake lady and a monk, who hunts demons. The white snake is named Susu, played by Huang Shengyi, and she has a sister, the green snake, Qingqing, played by Charlene Choi. They decide to make some friendly trouble for a group of humans traveling in their neighborhood. The humans are collecting herbs for medicines and are being lead by a young man who wants to be a doctor, Xu Xian, played by Raymond Lam. During this little escapade of the snake sisters, Susu falls in love with Xu Xian and decides to try to seduce him and live in the world of humans. She gets Qingqing to help her in this endeavor during a village festival in the town that Xu Xian lives in, which puts Qingqing in contact with her own human interest. Long story short, Susu succeeds in winning Xu Xian's love and they get married and begin building a life together.
The second main character is the Abbot Fahai, played by Jet Li. The good Abbot is roaming about the countryside with his apprentice Neng Ren, played by Wen Zhang, hunting demons. When they find demons they defeat them in combat and suck their souls into a holy bowl to take back to the monastery. There the souls are trapped in a huge mirror that acts like a prison for demons, think General Zod in the original Superman. The Abbot is hunting down fox demons when he encounters Susu and her husband who are battling an infection spread among the people of the village by the same fox demons. Susu helps Xu Xian develop a cure for the disease with her demon spit. Fahai, after dispatching the fox demons, turns his attention to Susu. He tells her that since she helped the people he won't hurt her, but she must leave her husband, as her marriage is a lie. Demons can't love after all. She refuses and thus a war between the Abbot Fahai and the snake sisters ensue.
I would like to write a paragraph about what was good with this movie, but I am not interested in working that hard. First and foremost, this film was sold on it's looks, and those looks just aren't that great. The movie is heavy with CGI and none of it really good. Neng Ren is turned into a demon and looks more like the old Japanese manga Devilman. The actresses playing the snakes are beautiful women, but when attached to the snake bodies it looks like the CGI continues up on to their faces, making them look CGI as well. It actually takes a lot away from their natural beauty. The final fight scene involves a lot of water and the animators manage to ruin the realistic look of crushing waves. The effects just end up being see through candy coating, like fake chocolate covering corn syrup.
The writing is weak as well. First there are the romance scenes between Susu and Xu Xian, all of which seems forced, over the top cliches. There is no belief in love established here. Second, the dialogues between Fahai and Neng Ren, which I think are supposed to be funny, just aren't. The dialgues between Fahai and Susu, which include threats and aggression, are deadpan. Jet Li, who I know can be funny, is not and he is not even threatening when he is giving Susu her ultimatum. Then, there is the interactions between Neng Ren and Qingqing. It appears Qingqing when wants a human of her own she goes after poor Brother Neng Ren. This is all supposed to be cute and funny and it fails miserably. That doesn't stop them from at the end having a demon Neng Ren comfort his lovely snake girlfriend after she is beaten by Fahai. Very unbelievable sorrow. Last, there is the ending itself, where the script ties itself into knots.
I don't mind telling you this as I am recommending you don't bother watching this film, unless you need a laxative. The Abbot wishes to see Susu punished for not ending her marriage. Fahai kidnaps Xu Xian to erase all memory of Susu from his mind. Susu tries to stop this in the final battle. It is only when she agrees with Buddha, yes Buddha, that she renounce her marriage and spend her time for her crimes, which is apparently getting married and helping people, that the Buddha allows her to say good bye to her husband. She is then locked away in the demon prison in hopes of being reborn as something better than a demon. Fahai, sees he has been too cruel and indiscriminate in his demon hunting and chooses to be a more a peaceful guy by making sure the demons he hunts really deserve it. He even takes along the newly demonized Neng Ren to show his new turned leaf to the world.
All throughout this film we are exposed to religious imagery through the poor CGI. So much so, that I began to wonder if Jet Li made this film solely to sell Buddhism. The problem is the religious message, if there is one, is not clear. What is clear wouldn't sell Buddhism very well. All the demons, except Neng Ren, are women, good looking women. They tempt Fahai at every turn and like the Buddha avoiding temptation under the Bodhi tree Fahai chants his way through their sexy beastly dances. Fahai accuses Susu that her love is a lie and she just used magic to seduce poor Xu Xian in to marriage. The message I am exposing is one that suggests women are treacherous, seducers who led men astray. At the end Fahai realizes that Susu's love was real and he is generous enough to wish her well during her time in demon prison. So, the message can be summed up that women are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Archaic modes of cultural thinking that had nothing to do with real Buddhism is what Jet Li let slip into his film. Now, maybe all this was apart of the original legend, I would say that matters little as well. The Chinese, like many other cultures, attached their own beliefs and ideas to the teachings brought back home by silk road travelers like Xaunzang. We all know what Buddha said about attachment, don't we?
In conclusion, don't watch this. Find something else, an older Jet Li film, or a live action movie without cartoon effects, or a story based on something besides a legend that sounds more like a poorly written manga.
Bool Kogi Western
Imagine a American Western film, but set it in the early Twentieth Century, include bandits and mysterious bounty hunters, petty thieves, train robbery and a treasure map. Now drive it over the top so that it includes all types of weapons and modes of transportations, like swords and machine guns mounted on jeeps and motorbikes. Now, move it all and drop it in Manchuria, at this point you might be close to imagining the Korean film The Good, The Bad, The Weird. When I say that the film is set in the 1930's, when Japan was controlling Manchuria and Korea, do not take that to mean that there is any historical accuracy in this film at all. It has the historical accuracy of an Indiana Jones film with the same crazy stunts. Also, like an Indiana Jones film it revolves around a treasure that everyone is trying to find.
The three main characters are the The Good, Park Do-won, played by Jung Woo-sung. Many foreign film viewers might remember him as Yeo-sol, the slave in Musa. Park Do-won is a bounty hunter after The Bad and The Weird. The Bad, Park Chang-yi, played by Lee Byung-hun, who many Americans will know as Storm Shadow from the G.I. Joe franchise. Park Chang-yi is a hired gun with a gang that is paid to go after the train carrying the map. However, someone gets to the map before he does, by just a few minutes. The Weird, Yoon Tae-goo, played by Song Kang-ho, who some might know from The Host, is a petty thief who by pure coincidence robs the train that Park Chang-yi is trying to rob. All the while Park Do-won has hidden himself among the passengers to catch Park Chang-yi. When Yoon Tae-goo makes a run from the train with the map, both Chang-yi and Do-won follow, thus starting what is one of the greatest chase movies of all time, which includes a scene with one lone motorcyclist being chased by a horde of comprised of three different groups of armed men riding everything from horses to jeeps.
This is not a movie for dramatists, there is no character development or touching scenes of inner turmoil or revealing inner depths. The characters are what they are, and while two-dimensional at times, they're never boring. Jung Woo-sung, like his chacarter in Musa, does a silent good guy with the best of them. In this film he is more like an acrobatic Clint Eastwood. Lee Byung-hun plays a great villain, cold blooded, dressed in black, the classic badass who murders his own men if they disappoint. The film is billed as an action-comedy, and that is mainly because of Song Kang-ho, who doesn't tell jokes but uses his skills as a physical comedian. His character goes through action sequence after action sequence seeming to stay alive by pure luck, like falling down at the right time. The music might also be a comedic element, though it is very well done. The film is filled with a fast paced, Spanish guitar led Mariachi score. Though the score is quite good, it does bring to mind Spaghetti Westerns and mixed with the films locale, a more techno beat and the great timing of score it became pretty entertaining by itself. While none of this is really funny, it is fun.
This movie is not for purists of any kind either. As mentioned early, it is not historical accurate. Also, don't bother counting bullets, or determining the physics behind the shots taken. We all know someone who ruins movies by pointing out that the firearm being used doesn't hold that many bullets and would have needed to be reloaded. They will also say things like, "No way he could've made that shot! That is impossible!" Yes, it is, that is why it is in the movie. Some people might nit-pick at some of the CGI effects. There are not many, but they are somewhat cartoonish. They don't spoil the fun and the movie is not CGI heavy, so it was easy to overlook. Like so many good Asian action films The Good, The Bad, The Weird, is meant to be a circus performance with a story to piece it together. It is just pure fun, treat it no other way.
When China Was Wild
China spent almost a century in great turmoil, from the Taiping Rebellion, the fall of the Qing, a failed republic, a decade of warlords, the second World War, and a brutal civil war, before being unified once again. The years of the warlords was probably the most chaotic politically, with very little clear idea of who controlled what. This time was roughly from 1919 to 1930. It is 1919, a year when people could buy themselves governorships over towns and entire districts, and parts of China resembled the American Wild West, that the story of Jiang Wen's Let the Bullets Fly takes place.
The premise of the film is how a honorable enough bandit leader can take the control of town away from the human and drug trafficking kingpin who runs it. Jiang Wen plays the bandit leader, Pockmarked Zhang. Zhang robs a train with a man on it named Ma Bangde, played by Ge You, an aspiring politician. Ma Bangde has bought himself a governorship and is on his way to collect. During the robbery Ma's counselor dies and Ma faced with Zhang who is looking for a rich governor. So, Ma lies saying he is the counselor, and that his dead counselor was really the governor to be, hoping Zhang will let him go. With that information, Zhang decides to use Ma's expertise to take on the governorship Ma was supposed to take over for himself. Upon arriving at the city Zhang is immediately pitted against the local crime boss, Master Huang, played by Chow Yun-fat. These two characters interacting is almost like John Wayne meeting Al Capone. They engage in a battle of wits and will for the life of the poor little place called Goose Town.
The movie moves fast, much like the time period it is set in. It is a witty cross between a gunslinging western and a prohibition era, Chicago gangster flick, all set in southern China. The interplay between Chow's character and Jiang's is amazing. It is similar to watching the Al Pacino and Robert De Niro exchange in Heat, only it lasts through the whole film and is amusingly clever. The characters are large personalities that engage in word play games with each other before, after, and during all the violence. A cord of humor runs through the entire piece that never feels forced or misplaced. A wonderful example of this is the constant referencing of Chinese history and myth in the film. As when Master Huang talks about gathering arrows with straw boats, a reference to a famous Three Kingdoms era strategist, Zhuge Liang. Of course, Huang's servant doesn't get the reference adding a comedic point in the film.
The film is not without substance however. One of the reasons I have become such a huge fan of Jiang Wen's work as a director is his talent of mixing elements of action, comedy, and drama, all in a very human way without the fake feeling that many films have, and all with a layer of morality holding it all together. While the jokes fire and the bullets fly there is clear message Jiang is pushing at the audience. Maybe Western movie goers might miss it, but the Chinese I am sure didn't. In a conversation between Ma Bangde and Zhang, Ma tells Zhang that a politician has to kowtow to the person with the money, in this case the drug lord Huang. Zhang tells Ma he became a bandit because his knees don't bend well, another reference to Chinese classicalism, namely The Outlaws of the Marsh. This conversation sets the tone of the feeling that many rebellious souls in China at this period felt and can easily be applied to modern politics as well. The May Fourth Movement, a very influential intellectual movement that criticized traditional Chinese culture and the power structure it supported was started in the year 1919, therefore I don't believe the films time setting was a coincidence. Nor is Zhang's past a coincidence either, as a person returning to China to find society in chaos is a theme for many Chinese historical figures. I believe that Jiang Wen is finding a light way to tie in heavy topics of Chinese history to engage modern Chinese. The movie shows people allowing themselves to be pushed around by the rich and powerful, all the while not understanding that they have given those people their wealth and power. Zhang is determined to have the town's people take back all that they have given Huang.
Much of the cast of this film is part of what is called the Sixth Generation, a group of actors and directors working through the mid-80's to present. These are some of the biggest names in Chinese cinema, making history for the industry and becoming internationally known. For example, Jiang Wen played a role in Zhang Yimou's Red Sorghum next to Gong Li. Ge You was the leading role in Zhang Yimou's To Live and Farewell My Concubine, again staring with Gong Li. While Chow Yun-fat comes from a different group of filmmakers in Hong Kong he is well know for his action movies with director John Woo, and of course, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. With talent to spare the cast makes these characters come to life in a bright, flashy and funny way. There are also surprisingly intense moments as well.
I have now watched this film a couple of times and have found many aspects to enjoy. I have watched the dinner scene with Jiang Wen, Chow Yun-fat, and Ge You several times and found it moves like a shell game with the innuendo being shuffled between the three actors. The dialogue always seems to have two meanings, like a classic Chinese poem, one side moving, the other questionable. I highly recommend this film to any true movie going fan. While this film is distinctively Chinese it will appeal to any one with head for dark, fast humor.
Due to finances, time considerations, as well as the laws surrounding international releases, I am not always able to watch the movies I want when I want. As a result I sometimes find myself making an impulse buy to satisfy movie watching desires that have remained unfulfilled. Case in point was my purchase of This Girl is Badass. The movie stars Thai actress 'Jeeja' Yanin Vismitananda, from Chocolate and Raging Phoenix fame. Jeeja has become famous as she is a martial artist who has been compared to another Thai actor, Tony Jaa. I am a sucker for a good stunt based martial arts flick. I wanted to see both of these other movies of hers, but never had the opportunity. So, when I was standing at the store and saw the Thai action-comedy, This Girl is Badass, starring the famed female butt-kicker, I thought this was my chance to finally see her in action. My wife took one look at it and warned me it would be stupid. The impulse was too much, it overpowered her warning.
The cast is hard to critique for the script is so bad I can't honestly believe that the most talented actor could save it. There is no explanation for what is going on or why. You never quite understand what people are doing. For example, everyone seems to have a plan and they talk about this plan, but never talk about it and you're never shown anything that helps you understand what the plan is. "What are you going to do about the plan?", would say one while another says, "Don't worry, I have a plan." Most of what is said is some kind of joke and most of those are horribly lame. The few times there is something funny it seems to come about from the natural talents of the comedic actors staring in this film. These moments seem like improvised acting that the director decided was better than the script.
Jeeja plays a young woman named Jukakalan, who is a bike messenger that delivers drugs for different crime bosses. She has an adoptive uncle named Wang, played by Petchtai Wongkamlao (a.k.a. Mum Jokmok) who is known as being a funny man and is the director of the film. She also has a very stupid friend named Naew, played by Bawriboon Chanreuang, who is always wearing bike riding uniforms. Her boss, Samureng, played by Akom Preedakul, is always dressed in some outlandish outfit that makes him look like a pornographic circus clown. She has an admirer named Duan, played by Chalerm Yamchamang, who is always dressed in white with bad pastel sweaters and bow ties. So many of the actors play their parts with outrageous accents, making them sound cheesy and cartoonish. It seems the idea was that if the actors were dressed like idiots and spoke like idiots the jokes would go over better. Jeeja begans stealing from the bosses, though why is never made clear. They want their money and thus we have incredibly unimaginative plot.
I am ok with a martial arts movie having a poor premise as long as unbelievable stunts follow each other back to back. I watch these movies for the same reason people go to the circus, to see crazy unrealistic things happen before your very eyes. Jeeja's fight scenes, however, are few and far between with so much weak and annoying dialogue to wade through before you get to one. The action itself seems slower than it should as well. It is as if they didn't film it right, slow setting maybe, or Jeeja just isn't as good as Tony Jaa. There are too many times the film slows down so you can watch a not very impressive stunt play out. Normally in such movies you don't get to see a punch or kick coming. That is good. You want to be taken by surprise like the poor bastard taking the punch. Unfortunately, every last punch in this movie was telegraphed. You knew what was going to happen because the actors are standing there preparing for the foot to kick them. The choreographed moves look like unpracticed choreographed moves. The imagination behind the scenes as well is weak, only there to showcase something that they thought would be cool, but never bothering to develop a natural flow that would get the characters riding a bike rack being pulled by a van logically. Yes, this happens in the film, but you don't know why and it is not impressive.
There is also a fun little public service message you're subjected to. Uncle Wang runs a store that sells movies, DVDs and VCDs. He has competition across the way from person who sells pirated DVDs. This guy does pretty well for himself, better than Wang, until he is arrested and sent to prison for selling pirated DVDs. Wang then gives the viewer an after school special speech about how the law is changing. It will bring harsh punishments to people who pirate movies and how pirating a DVD is theft, just like any other kind of theft. He holds his head in frustration over why anyone would want to steal someone else's idea. If only Hollywood had Uncle Wang as a spokesmen to talk to a nation of people as if they are little misguided children.
While I still have a desire to see her other movies, for she got famous for something, I am certainly not spending any money on impulse buys. If you have any interest in watching how the Thai film industry is developing, and it is, you might want to watch this. Though, I don't see this movie doing a lot for the reputations of Thai film makers. However, I am willing to bet you care little about that, which means you have no reason to watch this film. Unless you think Jeeja is cute and just like watching her, which I am sure will sell some people. As the movie was wrapping up, it has a very long and painful ending like a villain who just won't die, my wife said, "See! I told you it was stupid. Don't listen to me, waste money." Yes, I should always heed my love's warnings.
In Thailand, during the reign of Rama IV, King Mongkut, there lived a beautiful young woman by Phra Khanong in Bangkok. That is an area next to the water ways that have marked the city known as the Venice of the East. This young lady was named Nak and she became a legend whose story has been told and retold through books, TV, and movies. Her fame has grown so much that there is a shrine dedicated to her where people go to offer her and her child gifts and ask for help, though pregnant women always avoid it, because Nak died during childbirth. Even today she is known by all, revered and feared, as Mae Nak, Thailand's most famous ghost.
Her story is a tragic one of course, why else would she be a ghost. She fell in love with a young man named Maak. They were married and were living happily until Maak was called up for military service. This was because the Kingdom was involved in fighting one of their neighbors, though the legend doesn't really say. Before he left Nak became pregnant, though Maak didn't know this. While Maak was away Nak went into labor, but died along with her child and was buried by the villagers. Maak was seriously wounded during the fighting and was away longer than he thought he would be while healing. When he returned home he found his beautiful wife and newborn child greeting him.
He lived happily again with his wife, but started noticing that people would avoid their home. People who were once their friends and neighbors would never go near them. A few braver villagers went to tell Maak that his wife had died while giving birth when he was away at war. Of course Maak didn't believe them because his wife was right there at home. They told him she was a ghost, as was the child and warned him he better leave. These same villagers would turn up dead, as the ghost of Mae Nak would become furious at them for getting in between her and Maak. When Maak figures out that the dead villages were right and that Nak is responsible for killing them, he of course runs. This drives Nak well over the egde, as much as a ghost can I guess.
Eventually, though different accounts tell of different events, there was an exorcism that captured Mae Nak and kept her from terrorizing the village. She only stopped as she was promised to be reunited with her dear Maak in another life. During the exorcism, the head monk removed her corpses forehead, thus providing a path for her soul to depart the body. This bit of bone was made into an amulet that is lost to history. Thus the legend of Nak's undying love is born. Thais called her from then on Mae Nak, or Mother Nak. Sometimes she is referred to as Nang Nak, or Lady Nak.
Her shrine, which is where she is supposed to be buried, is filled with offerings like food, drinks and toys for her child. There are dresses for her to wear and paintings done to capture her beauty. There is also a statue of her and her child covered in gold leaf and dressed up, for the visitors to pay their respects to. People leave all manner of objects, like coke for her to drink, diapers for her child, and they always have a TV playing in her room, so she never gets bored. It is said she favors young lovers, and hates the military draft. This explains all the young men who have been called up to serve that come to her and ask her for help get them out of it.
For Thai people there is no strong separation between the living and the dead. The dead are there, moving around the living, it is just a matter of the living noticing them or not. Mae Nak is held in high regard because she was a powerful spiritual person. Her love for her husband and her will to stay with him was so strong that she could manifest convincingly for her husband, as a flesh and blood woman. She could commit murder even. Since she has this power to effect the world of living so much, people feel the need to keep her happy. They might ask a favor as well, because if she can kill people as a ghost, she must be capable of other things, right?
As I stated earlier her story has been told many times. My wife recalled for me a version that was popular when she was a child. She watched a TV show about Mae Nak with her grandmother that scared her silly. Several movies have been done about her as well. One of the more internationally know was Nang Nak, which was done back in 1999. This version was well funded and was a selection of the Rotterdam Bangkok Film Festival and included a well know cast, especially the beautiful Intira Jaroenpura as Mae Nak.
Unfortunately, the movie I got to see recently was not Nang Nak. What I watched was The Ghost of Mae Nak, which was directed by British director Mark Duffield. This movie didn't deal with the legend of Mae Nak, but told a story about her return as a ghost, after being exorcised. In this film a young couple named Maak and Nak, already the pathetic attempts at plot building start, get married and buy the house that used to belong to Mae Nak. Mae Nak, thinking this young Maak is her Maak returned to her, begins to haunt the couple. Maak buys a protecive amulet because of nightmares that Mae Nak is giving him, which just happens to be the bone amulet made from her forehead. Mae Nak is protective of Maak but jealous of Nak. So this means she helps the couple only when Maak will somehow be harmed. People who try to harm Maak in some way are killed off. Eventually Mae Nak tries to replace Nak, even though Nak is doing everything she can to put Mae Nak's ghost to rest. Nak's motivation to help Mae Nak is to convince her to let Maak come up of the coma she has put him in.
The whole movie was horrible. I do not normally like horror films, because I don't like being scared. There is enough in this world to be scared about that I don't need it in my entertainment. Plus, I scare easy, real easy. I have a very active imagination that keeps working well after the movie is over, so horror movies stay with. As for slasher films, well, I don't like violence for violence sake. I think there is something wrong with enjoying story-less violence. Those types of movies end up being nothing but torture films, as far as I am concerned. I convinced myself to watch this as it was a ghost story, more than a horror film, per se, and it was based on a cultural icon of Thailand. The Ghost of Mae Nak did not scare me. Some horror films are so bad that they are funny, like Evil Dead or Gremlins. The Ghost of Mae Nak so bad it wasn't even funny. My wife and I couldn't even make fun it and enjoy it that way. As far as learning about Mae Nak in popular Thai culture is concerned, this movie failed that as well. In the end the whole film is a failure on many different levels.
Normally I name the actors, just in case someone would want to learn more about them, but since I don't believe one person in this film is a professorial actor I am not wasting my time. Only few minutes into the film and I thought this was a school film project and Mark just got a bunch of his best friends to star in it. The lead playing Maak can't even fake being drunk, but stammers out his lines. The effects were despicable. One scene was a man's head being taken off by a passing train and then flying through the air. It looked more like a bad cartoon from the late seventies, rather than a horrific murder committed by a ghostly woman. The 'terrorizing' face of wrath that Mae Nak makes at people was just a childish animation over the actresses face. The best actor in the film was the actress playing Mae Nak, and that was because all she said was Maak's name. Most of the time she just stood there, she was really good at that.
The only reason I decided to write this review in the first place was to discuss a little Thai culture and warn people about this film. Please, do not see it. I have two hours of my life I can not get back. Writing this review is the only way I can get something for my wasted time watching Duffield's film. There is a much longer list of Mae Nak inspired performances to see. I highly recommend finding one of those instead.